Bats pitcher Robert Stephenson's fastball has always had the speed, and now he's added the accuracy

Jun 1, 2016 at 11:02 am
Bat's pitcher Robert Stephenson
Bat's pitcher Robert Stephenson

On the mound, Bats pitcher Robert Stephenson rocks into motion and fires his fastball.

You know it’s going to be coming in hot and hard to hit. Stephenson’s fastball has always had the fire. What’s new this summer is the talented 23-year-old now has a pretty good idea where his heat is headed.

“A couple years ago I was throwing harder, but I could never figure out where it was going,” said Stephenson, a No. 1 draft choice of the Cincinnati Reds in 2011 who has risen swiftly through the Reds minor league system to reach the AAA Louisville Bats. It is a projected final step on a fast-track trip to the major leagues.

“I’ve taken a little off my fastball, and feel a lot better about it,” said Stephenson. An observer keeping an eye on the radar pitch speeds posted on the outfield fence, noticed Stephenson’s former 95-mph fastballs are arriving at 93 mph now — and more frequently in the strike zone. That forces hitters to swing the bat, rather than shop through an array of the pitcher’s offerings looking for a nice fat one to feast on. Stephenson is currently 3-2, with a 3.28 ERA, and a dependable leader in the Bats starting pitching rotation.  Starting pitching is a Bats strength, lifting Louisville to second place in the International League West Division, one game behind the Columbus Clippers. A current home stand continues through Monday with games against Toledo and Rochester at Slugger Field.

Stephenson has always been a talent, drafted No. 1 by the Reds out of Alhambra High, in Martinez, California – where he began his senior season with back-to-back no hitters. In 2014, with AA Pensacola Blue Wahoos Stephenson led the Southern League with 140 strikeouts. Of course he also led the league with 74 walks. Fixing that ratio, he said, is the goal.

He’s not really wild — just needs to refine his pitches.

“You’re aiming small, hoping to come within an inch or so of the target,” Stephenson explained. “You’re not going to hit all your spots every time, unless you’re Greg Maddux (the Hall of Fame hurler noted for perfect control.) I’m not going to be like that. I’m going to use my stuff a little more, and try to overpower hitters.”

Then yank the cord.

“Once I’m confident I can throw my fastball for strikes, then I’m very confident in my off-speed pitches to get guys out,” said Stephenson, who was doing just that in a recent game against Scranton Wilkes-Barre. The 6-foot-2 right-hander was feeding the Scranton Railrider hitters a steady diet of 91-93 mph fastballs, with the occasional 87 mph — and getting a lot of ground balls. When a top Scranton batter stepped in, Stephenson served up a variation in the menu: 93 mph: strike, 92: ball, 94:strike and then — whoops! — an 80-mph curveball – whiff! The last pitch was some kind of thing that came in straight, and then dropped like a rock, with the hitter missing by a mile. “Yer out!” said the ump.

Stephenson was called up by Cincinnati as an emergency fill-in starter at the beginning of the season — and is likely to be called back to the majors again. He pitched well, with wins against Philadelphia and Colorado in two starts. But the Reds sent him right back to Louisville, with the idea of getting a full season of starts at the AAA level: to work on his command.

“Right now the idea is for me to develop here, so when I get up to the majors, I can stay there,” said Stephenson.

“That’s what he’s got to do to have success at the next level,” said Bats manager Delino DeShields. “You know this game comes down to the fastball. The good hitters in the major leagues, nine out of 10 of them, can hit the fastball consistently. The pitchers the same way, nine out of 10 of them can command their fastball. It’s not about having a great change-up or curve-ball — if you can’t throw the fastball where you want to, you’re going to struggle.”

The Bats rotation is also boosted by another 23-year-old phenom, Cody Reed, a left-hander who came to the Reds organization last season from World Series champion Kansas City. In eight games at AA Pensacola, Reed won six times, with a 2.17 ERA, and he is slated to pitch the entire summer at Louisville. Currently, Reed is 4-2, with a 2.70 ERA.

Fans have picked up on a little Reed trademark in which he jumps over the third base line on his way to the mound at the start of each inning. Yes, many players step across the line as a good-luck thing. But Reed leaps the line, and all the dirt on the skinned-off base path — a broad-jump distance from grass to grass of about six feet.  Of course, Reed is tall and athletic, so he can do it in style, often throwing his arm up in the air as he lands.

DeShields just smiles.

“I’d say it can be more tiring to live and die on every pitch,” said DeShields. “You’ve got to have that even keel kind of mentality. Especially a starting pitcher in the big leagues. You’re not going to get calls, things aren’t going to always go your way. You’ve got to stay away from the big highs and the big lows.”

And have fun!